Halloween Writing Contest Second Place: Honest living


Zanny StowellSpecial to the Southern News

In a world of industry, life is about compromises. I know that. My father, and his father before him, they didn’t need to know it, not the way I do. There was a time you could get by and live happy on hens and cows, not the ones wired through with tubes, but ones you brushed and gave names to, with sweet milk and mismatched marble eggs.

But it is all novelty, now. I live off the skin of my teeth, off the goodwill of suburban families who pretend they enjoy the experience of navigating a stroller along a dirty pathway, off the children who steal penny-candy and spit in the water troughs. I let them peel and pull apart ears of corn for inspection, only to find them wanting compared to the ones at Stop n’ Shop. I don’t sell them the things they need, anymore. What I sell them is authenticity. What I sell them is the ability to pretend, just for one moment, that life is simple, and milk is sweet.

But authenticity does not run off dead cows.

Pearl was the first to go, her stall in the barn empty. The other girls—Myrtle and Rita and Misty—stood quiet and shivering, staring at me with those big, sad eyes cows have. I found Pearl in the cornfield, pale and disemboweled, her tongue swollen and everything limp in the center of a flattened circle. Every stalk around her, perfectly crushed, as if God had taken his fist and smashed it down from the very heavens. And I found it awfully odd, I’ll admit, but blamed it on the coyotes. I managed to nudge her out of the field with a tractor and into a shallow ditch.

That night I slept uneasy. I dreamt of milking cows, but all their teats could spit into the bucket was frothy blood. I bottled it in glass jars. I churned it into ice cream. I sold it to a family with long fingers and black eyes, who spoke in a language I couldn’t understand.

In the morning, Myrtle was gone. I knew to find her in the corn field, in the same circle where Pearl had been, her legs straight up in rigor mortis, her eyes and teeth gone like someone wriggled them out with pliers. A sickly sweet smell hovered above the flattened stalks, a smell that clung to the hairs in my nose long after I’d nudged Myrtle out and into a ditch alongside her sister.

Maybe I slept that night. Maybe not. It’s hard to remember. A family slithered in through my window, long-fingered and black-eyed, and even though they spoke in a language I could not understand, I knew what they wanted from me.

It must sound awfully odd, but don’t worry. It’s all settled, now, because, like I said, you learn to get by on compromises. I drew up a pattern and cut the maze myself, and for ten dollars a person you and your friends can go in and let yourself be swallowed up into the field. Most people, it’ll take about thirty to forty minutes to get through, and they’ll come out laughing, dizzy with vertigo and itchy from the stalks that lick as rough as a cow’s tongue. The rest, I suppose, are the ones who found the circle.

Things are good. I’m getting by.

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